Bighorn barrier

Special to The Times

In the pinyon pine forests and palm oases near Palm Springs, hikers are griping about a recent proposal that would limit access to trails, including the popular Skyline Trail, that traverse habitat for endangered peninsular bighorn sheep.

"What is it about people walking respectfully on a trail that harms sheep?" asks Rancho Mirage hiker Jane Udall. "When did we get to be the bad guys?"

The proposal to create a permit system that would reduce trail traffic is just one segment of a Multiple Species Habitat Conservation Plan drafted by the Coachella Valley Assn. of Governments. Though few hikers or agency officials have read the entire encyclopedic document, opinions about its potential effects are flying.

Some people who moved here in part for unfettered access to the miles of hilly trails bristle at the implication that they disturb the sheep in a valley where golf courses and luxury housing are gobbling up wildlife habitat. About 100 bighorn live in the area, according to a local conservation group.

"Why have they picked on us? Because we have no political power," says Chuck Nisbet, president of the Coachella Valley Hiking Club. "Developers have huge power."

If local, state and federal government stakeholders approve the plan, about 25% of the 115 miles of trails, mostly within San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains National Monument, will be open only to permit-holders during the January to June bighorn lambing season. The restricted routes would include Skyline Trail, a rugged trek with 8,000 feet of gain that warms up hikers for bagging Mt. San Jacinto peak. The Coachella Valley Assn. of Governments will hold a series of public hearings on its plan before seeking approvals by this time next year.

Until now, wildlife officials have encouraged hikers to voluntarily avoid bighorn hangouts during lambing season. Quotas and permits are not foreign to hikers, but such restrictions typically aim to control crowds in more popular places such as Mt. Whitney.

Hikers argue that no scientific data support the claims that their rambles harm sheep. Yet an ironclad study may be too far off to serve the urgent needs of an endangered species, says Jim DeForge, a biologist and director of the Bighorn Institute in Palm Desert.

"We're supposed to use common sense and the best science at hand," he says. "If you have high activity around sheep, they usually don't fare well." DeForge has not taken a public stance on the permit plan.

In the absence of hard evidence, hikers like Dee Fox rely on personal observation. A few weeks ago while hiking a trail near Palm Springs, she encountered a young bighorn. Fox sat down on a boulder, sipped from her water bottle, and the lamb — possibly attracted by the slurping noise — came closer. "It wasn't afraid," Fox says.

Another local hiker, Dale DeGeeter, says he has spotted sheep dozens of times on his twice-weekly hikes. "The sheep simply don't see us as predators so they totally ignore us," he says.

But this grass-roots logic — "I've run into sheep and it didn't bother them a bit" — frustrates biologist DeForge. "Did you ever see a hiker look at a sheep and the sheep fall over dead? The answer is 'Of course not,' " he says.

Humans can cause sheep to flee, he says. And if the animals abandon prime habitat during lambing, the results can be deadly.

Some wildlife champions hope the ruckus over trail access will encourage hikers to think more seriously about how seemingly innocuous activities might disturb wildlife.

For instance, to a tiny wren, binocular lenses look like the eyes of an unspeakable predator, says Tracy Albrecht, interpretive specialist for the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. So forget the big-footed hikers. When it comes to spooking wildlife, Albrecht says: "The bird-watchers are the worst."

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